Honest Self-Reflection As a Graduate Student: Scientist, Imposter, Who Is the Real Me?

Brittany Trang

Bloopers and Highlights: Am I America’s Funniest Home Videos or a Really Hype Sports Montage?

As an undergrad, I worked on the same project for two and a half years. None of the research I did ended up being publishable.

When I applied to grad school, I got rejected from every school I applied to except one. I even got rejected from my “safety” schools.

All my lab mates who joined our research group at the same time I did have published their initial first-author grad school papers. I got as far as finishing 95% of mine, then found a problem that forced us to throw away almost two years of my work.

Earlier this year, I got rejected from two separate science-writing learning opportunities I thought I was a shoo-in for.

During my Ph.D., I have spent an embarrassingly non-zero amount of time re-teaching myself how acids and bases work.

Yet if you look at my CV, you’ll see a first-author JACS paper from an internship I did as an undergrad. You’ll see that I’m an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in my dream research group at a top-tier university. You’ll see that I’ve even gotten the opportunity to write for several chemistry magazines.

So which of these people is the real me?

More importantly, which of these people do I believe is the real me?

Welcome to Season 3, Episode 7 of My Monthly Grad School Update

After my first month of grad school, I wrote a “grad school update” on Facebook to let my family and friends know what I was doing, how I was doing, and what the heck a chemistry Ph.D. is. Other grad students in my cohort told me that what I said resonated with them, that they were experiencing the same things.

As the months rolled on, I kept writing updates—sometimes with funny thoughts, sometimes with pictures of friends and food, but always with a space for me to talk about what I struggled with or learned or was proud of that month.

Thinking about what had been happening in my head that month helped me see what in my graduate student life was working and what wasn’t. Saying it out loud and knowing other people heard me, and maybe felt the same way, also made me feel more empowered to be imperfect, even if we didn’t discuss it.

I am still a work-in-progress; we all are. It’s easy to struggle with that. I hope that when I let you into my head, you can see that someone else feels the same way and be more okay with it yourself.

It’s a Shame Freaky Friday Isn’t Real, But This Is The Next Best Thing

A brief summary of what happens to me on any given day:

I get to lab and see that Person X and Person Y got there before me. Look how hard they’re working, I think. They’ve probably been here since 8:00 a.m. and gotten so many things done, and here I am, rolling in at 9:30.

I go to my lab bench and start setting up the experiment I planned for that day. I chat with my lab mate about the experiment he’s running, which sounds like a lot of work but also sounds like he’s going to get a lot of good data out of it. Wow, I think. How can he get that many things done? I should plan my experiments better. I need to figure out how to be more productive. Maybe I’ll slot in that big experiment this weekend. Maybe this is my chance to really push this project forward.

Later in the day, I ask a lab mate for his opinion on an experiment I’m planning. “That’s really cool,” he says. “But wait, you know what you could do with that material? You could turn it into X with Y using Z reaction, and it would be really good at Q, which would be even cooler. Wow, I just thought of that right now. That might actually work.” He searches for the paper he just saw about Z reaction, while I think, I have never had an original idea in my life. I need to read more papers so I can have more ideas. But when am I going to get the time to read more papers to have more ideas when I’m trying to work on getting better at planning experiments and being more productive?

Sitting at my desk in the afternoon, I get caught in the cross-wind of some free-wheeling, spit-balling idea-throwing among some of my office mates.

“If you want to do that, you should look at Smith’s work.”

“Ugh, but if I did that, that’s basically what the Moore group did. They just published a Macromolecules paper on it, like, last month.”

“And the guy—the guy from Texas, what’s his name? They also did something like that. It’s that Science paper. That’s the project I talked to him about when I visited.”

They keep talking while I process my data at my computer, and I wonder, How do they know all these people and their work and where they’re from? Does everybody know these people? Should I know these people? Would I know more of these people if I had gotten into more grad schools and visited more departments?

All Those Thoughts? Yeah, That’s Called Imposter Syndrome

I’m excited that I get to work with people who know so many things, have so many ideas, and can help me learn how to be a better scientist.

On the other hand, for me and many others, it’s hard to not to wonder whether you got into this group, university, or field by mistake when you feel like everyone is a better scientist than you are.

Some people call this sense of inadequacy and not-belonging-ness “imposter syndrome.” People have written thousands of articles about it.

Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, first-generation students, and other minorities are more prone to imposter syndrome than others because of the subtle things that signal, you don’t belong here. People might say, you should apply; you’ll get in because you’re [minority]. You’ll forever wonder whether you weren’t actually good enough and were only let in because you were [minority]. You might go to a seminar and realize that you are the only woman in the room. You could realize that all of the department’s titled lectures are named after white male professors and wonder that there wasn’t a single woman or person of color the department thought was worth celebrating—maybe because there were hardly any female or nonwhite professors to begin with.

Whether it’s the imposter syndrome or not, I definitely don’t often feel that the “successful” me is the real me.

This Is Not A Good Experiment

For me personally, and maybe for you as well, the feeling that everyone knows more and is better gets amplified by the fact that I am the one most likely to feel and experience the outcomes of my own shortcomings. Even though I know it won’t work out well, I often can’t help comparing my blooper reel to other people’s highlight reels.

As all scientists know, you can’t make any conclusions from an experiment that compares things in two completely different conditions. So what do we do?

Remember Kindergarten: Share and Be Kind (To Yourself)

If we talk about our failures and insecurities more, we won’t be comparing our worst with everyone else’s best anymore. We’ll see each other’s lives as they really are. It feels embarrassing to be vulnerable, but when other people expose the things they struggle with, I don’t revel in the fact that they have a weakness; I’m glad to see that they too have doubts about the same things that I feel discouraged about (or even different ones).

By letting people in on our journey to improving a skill, by letting them see us get excited and try hard, then struggle, then set more realistic goals (just like a classic New Year’s Resolution), we gain encouragement, support, and advice. We also show that you don’t wake up one day suddenly being amazing at everything. Though we understand that learning how to run a column, how to set up experiments at the synchrotron, or how to code takes time and practice, we don’t often exercise the same patience with ourselves when it comes to learning how to balance work time and free time, how to come up with new ideas, or how to plan a project.

Okay, But For Real, How Do I Do That?

Be patient with yourself. Find people who can give you examples of how they set about improving at a skill or began trying to overcome doubts about themselves. Find a mentor or two who will be honest with you about what you’re doing well and what you’re doing poorly. Use the times you fail (sometimes publicly and spectacularly!) to figure out where you went wrong and how to correct those issues as you move forward.

Look up to and learn from other grad students and postdocs and scientists, but don’t feel bad if you’re not exactly like them. You know different things than they do, you have different strengths than they do. Just because they hit milestones faster than you do doesn’t mean they are better scientists than you are. Different people and different projects progress at different rates for different reasons, and a lot of the time, it comes down to getting a little bit lucky.

So, Which Version Is Real?

Being a scientist doesn’t mean you have to be an infallible fountain of knowledge. Being a good scientist doesn’t mean you have to do everything the right way the first time. What it means is moving toward asking the right questions and figuring out how to answer them.

Sometimes, that question is, which version of myself do I think is the real me?

I hope you find that you are both your highlights and your bloopers, and so is everyone else.